Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Balena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pizza Capri, Hyde Park Haunt

Pizza Capri

When I lived in Hyde Park, several friends and I would block every Thursday to gather at any of the great restaurants in the neighbourhood. Given the multicultural environment in Hyde Park, there were restaurants representative accordingly. One of our favourites was Pizza Capri at 1501 E. 53rd Street. With so many Italian restaurants in Chicago having menus full of dishes with red sauces, Pizza Capri switched up a bit by adding cream sauces and other menu items that differ from the usual Italian restaurant fare.

Potato Soup, Bread, Olive Oil

Potato Soup, Bread, Olive Oil

Fast forward to 2015 and I had a craving for something to feast on from Pizza Capri. Opting to indulge a three course meal, I started with a cup of potato soup, along with the complimentary bread and olive oil accented with herbs. The potato soup popped with the flavour of potatoes and it was seasoned well enough that I didn’t miss any salt in the recipe. Instead of pasta, I ordered a small rosemary potato and chicken pizza. This was a complete deviation from a pizza with a tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings ranging from sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, and other ingredients. This pizza was simply divine. And with it being thin crust, it was hearty, but not to the point of me not being able to finish all of it.

Rosemary Potato and Chicken Pizza

Rosemary Potato and Chicken Pizza

Knowing that I was going to have a finale of coffee and dessert, I waited for about 15-20 minutes before having a cappuccino and a flourless chocolate cake. Just like I remember from my days past, the cappuccino was brewed well enough that I could take it without any sweeteners. As to the flourless chocolate cake, it was addictive. With the consistency of a mousse, atop a crème anglaise, topped with strawberries, and drizzled with chocolate syrup, it was the perfect companion to the cappuccino.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Since my first visit to Pizza Capri in the lat 90’s, the service and the high quality of the food have always been consistent. There are a few items on the menu that have classic red sauces and you can never fail by ordering any of the items. There are also specialty pizzas and other Italian dishes like alfredos and pasta in cream sauces that are also winners. But since my friends and I are now on different continents, whenever we have a reunion in Chicago, Pizza Capri is where we come together.

Pizza Capri Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Notte Cafe & Bar

La Notte Cafe & Bar

It dawned on me that although I have blogged a lot of restaurants in and around the metropolitan Chicago area, there are more that I have visited and not blogged. I don’t always have my camera with me and because I often leave my cellphone at home intentionally, I then don’t have anything to record spoken annotations of certain dining experiences. Fortunately, there are some restaurants that are still in business and their first visits were so memorable that I have since returned. La Notte Cafe & Bar at 6822 Windsor Avenue in Berwyn, Illinois, is an example of one of those restaurants where I went well over a year ago without a camera for capturing the impressions of all the good food.

Nottetini

Nottetini

Sidecar

Sidecar

A great friend and I returned for a second visit. Figuring that there would be a large dining crowd for the fantastic Saturday that it was, we arrive for a 4:00 PM seating. To make things even better, we sat outside on their patio and quenched our thirsts with a nottetini and a sidecar. The nottetini was truly a glass of Italy, a mixture of limoncello and vodka. James Bond would enjoy this one without having to mention wanting it shaken instead of stirred. I requested the sidecar with a slight modification. I wanted it mixed with whiskey for the base as opposed to a sour liqueur. Bravo!

Zuppe del Giorno

Zuppe del Giorno

We were in our usual mode of wanting a degustation. The beauty of going to small and family owned restaurants like La Notte is that you can order accordingly. And the menu may be adjusted to taste or ordering desires. This means nothing is thawed, popped into a microwave or conventional oven, arranged on a plate, and then brought to the table with a declaration of “Voila!” So, in keeping with our degustation, we started with the zuppe del giorno. This cup of love had a New England clam chowder base with smoked gouda cheese, shredded tilapia, fresh shrimp, a purée of shiitake mushroom, and finished with shallots, cognac, and a splash of tabasco sauce. Assolutamente deliziosa.

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

A lot of my recent restaurant outings have reintroduced chicken and some beef into my diet. The result of that, and I really shouldn’t put the blame on indulging meat, is that I have gained a few inches in my waistline. That is quite fine, except for me having a hard time zipping and buttoning some tailor-made pants that cost a mint. In addition to my new gym membership, I need to get back to a regimented pescatarian diet. The great thing about La Notte is that the seafood selection is splendid. So, we ordered soft shell crab. The soft shell crab came with a balsamic glaze and honey mustard over a mixed greens and cherry tomatoes. Very simple, yet savoury.

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Italian dining does not always have to include pasta. And anyone who has had risotto worth using as a trump card in discussion about who has had the best dish ever will agree that Italian cuisine has some versatility that will make you forget about penne, spaghetti, fettuccine, and angel hair pasta. The risotto we ordered came with a cheese base blooming with great taste, giant shrimp, tender scallops, and chopped asparagus. Served family style, the dish was substantial. The chef left disappointment out of the recipe completely. Grazie a dio per questo.

Sea Bass and Vegetables

Sea Bass and Vegetables

With the platter of sea bass and mixed, grill vegetables of squash, zucchini, red onions, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes, we got a tableside presentation in deboning the bass. Watching the owner work his magic with only a fork and spoon, and then applying a garlic drizzle to the dish, you have to appreciate the art involved in filleting the fish. But the burst of gusto in each bite had me almost forgetting about the side pasta that had come with the dish. And given that there is quite a bit of the sea bass and vegetables, the dish is still light.

Limoncello

Limoncello

Tulip

Tulip

There exists an atmosphere very much like that of the “old country.” There is no rush. My friend and I sat to let the soup, appetizer, and entrées settle. After some time, we decided that we would indulge dessert, which is another vice that I need to control. We had some homemade limoncello — my friend because she was not driving and me as a disclaimer to null the discomfort from a pulled muscle. The son at La Notte explained that his grandmother sends lemons from Phoenix, Arizona, and that is what they use to make the limoncello. Good on them because it is worthy of savouring from a sniffer.

Tartufo

Tartufo

There was a chocolate tulip, filled with chocolate sorbet and topped with chocolate. Be forewarned if you order the tulip, it is rich. And if the tulip isn’t enough, the tartufo is another option for catering to the monster. A small ball of vanilla ice cream encased in a bigger ball of chocolate ice cream and then dusted with cocoa powder and hazelnuts. Served with strawberries and whipped cream, all you have to do is add the clinking of a spoon on your plate and a scream afterwards.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

For our finale, my friend had coffee with cream and I had a cappuccino. My indicator for good coffee is when you can take it without any sweeteners. The cappuccino surpassed the test and reminded me of the cups of cappuccino I had during visits to Milan.

Berwyn is slowly becoming a nearby Chicago suburb whose focus is primarily on authentic dining. What many will find are family owned and small restaurants that boast dishes that you will indeed find during visits abroad. La Notte Cafe & Bar is not simply an establishment borrowing Italian charm. The father and son not only retained the Italian customs in the recipes, but also make sure that the dishes that come to the table reflect the same quality that they enjoy in their own homes. The service during my first visit was well past the high mark of 10. The service during the second visit was even better. For what I would consider fine dining, the prices are extremely reasonable. If you want the feel of going to someone’s home and having a meal without being rushed, I highly recommend La Notte Cafe & Bar. I know it won’t take me a whole year for a return visit.

La Notte Cafe on Urbanspoon

A-One Italian-French and A10

A10 Hyde Park

February is speeding with a quickness. And I had thought that I would have visited at least one restaurant per week since the New Year began. Alas, the constant snowing and arctic temperatures when snow isn’t falling joined forces to have me running to the warmth of my condominium rather than to the inviting flavours of any restaurants. That is not a good thing because it means once the temperatures warm up finally and I go outside to venture to restaurants for sampling, I will overdo it and then have issues with the night elves that visit my closet and stitch up my pants such that they’re tight around the belly. Ugh, I hate winter, but I love food enough to brave the chill of the Chicago air every once in a while.

A10 Dinner

A10 Dinner

Baguette

Baguette

A great friend and I had managed to escape to Hyde Park a few weeks ago to sample a new restaurant on the Hyde Park landscape. We were so blown over by the service and the food that the experience had plagued our thoughts and conversations since. After a long weekend of being inside, I had cabin fever. I am not a fan of shopping and long walks along the beach with the wind blowing angrily off of Lake Michigan may be a romantic escape for those who like to play roulette with pneumonia.  But food is my lover and I can stand a walk to the subway and connect to a bus to get to a destination that will take my mind way from the fact that the temperatures never got out of the single digits. So, after making reservations, we went back to A10 at 1462 E. 53rd Street in the new chi-chi fantasy world that has taken over the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park.

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Templeton Rye

Templeton Rye

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

There is always the request for what one would like to start with drinking. My friend tried her hand with an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail since I had it on the first visit and apparently wouldn’t shut up about how much I loved it. After her first few sips, she had kept mentioning how it was an excellent option. I was in a rare mood — no rarer than usual, though. I requested a flight of whiskies. You can hear all the beer connoisseurs mumbling through upturned sneers, “Snob.” With a baguette in front of us served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic with garlic cooked such that it was spreadable, we were off to a smashing start.

Garlic Soup

Garlic Soup

For starters, my friend had a bowl of roasted garlic soup and I had a Portobello mushroom pizza. The soup was hearty and full of flavour. I recommend it highly if you are all about being heart healthy. Even if you are one of those fans of vampire movies and you fear one of the pretty actors with polished fangs may come to you one night to bite your neck, a bowl of that soup would  be perfect for fending off those wicked vampires. The Portobello mushroom pizza was more like grilled toast with cheese, sautéed onions, and pickled carrots. Giordano’s what? Eduardo’s what? Lou Malnati’s what? Domino’s what? Pizza Hut what? The Portobello mushroom pizza was a blast.

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

My taste buds had me in a mood for seafood. Fortunately, A10 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to seafood offerings for my palate. I ordered a cold smoked trout that was served over whipped garlic potatoes. Wow! Having had trout fried, having it smoked such that the fish was flaky and meaty has now moved it up into my Top 5 Fish Loves. Because it was all so fantastic, I worked my knife and fork in slow motion, trying to make the moment last as long as possible without letting the dish get cold.

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Many of the specials had pork in the recipe, which was not something that appealed to my friend. Instead, she ordered blue crab ravioli with fried green tomatoes. During the first visit, she and I had shared a bit of our dishes and when I had tasted the ravioli that was bursting with blue crab, I understood fully why she ordered it again. This was not a case of “when all else fails,” but one of “you are certain not to fail by ordering the ravioli dish.”

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

We sat for a while after we wrapped up our entrées, reminiscing about how Hyde Park used to look. It appears that change is taking over the landscape of Hyde Park in a rapid fashion that would otherwise eradicate charm in other neighbourhoods because of poor execution. However, Hyde Park has been a bastion of diversity and change, so the new look doesn’t feel out-of-place. By the time my friend’s coffee and my cappuccino arrived, we had recounted where old establishments were that have gone away to give way to a shinier, dynamic Hyde Park.

Cappuccino and Biscotti

Cappuccino and Biscotti

In addition to our coffees, there is one dessert we had that I think that everyone in the Chicago metropolitan area, as well as visitors to the Chicago area, must try. It’s soft serve ice cream — and I don’t mean that cold foam you get at McDonald’s. It’s homemade ice cream, but accentuated with almond granola, a honey drizzle, and thyme. I have prepared my share of savoury ice cream, so this dessert was clearly a winner to me. This was my guilty pleasure dessert in advance of my birthday. I had an allowance for something sweet, yet not sugary and definitely not saccharine. It would be a lie for me to say that I was not in love after the very first scoop.

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

A10 is relatively new, perhaps only a few months of being in business. Unlike a lot of restaurants that are still in their neophyte stages, complete with fumbling and blaring presentations of overcompensation, A10 has the air of a well-oiled machine. It is also quite obvious that the residents of Hyde Park are appreciative of the restaurant gracing 53rd Street, as there is a constant flow of those from the neighbourhood coming in to partake of the menu offerings. For this to have been my second visit, I have been a minimum of ten notches past impressed. It’s not that the hostesses remembered me. It’s not that our first server came by and spoke. It’s not that those on the hospitality staff welcomed my friend and me back. It’s that they got it right. And for that, I say, “C’est bon et bravo!”

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 on Urbanspoon A10 Hyde Park on Foodio54

More Angry Pasta at Vapiano

Ginger Ale

Ginger Ale

Note: The Lincoln Park location at 2577 N. Clark Street closed in July, 2014. There is a new location in The Loop at 44 S. Wabash Avenue.

My appetite alarm had gone off an hour before it was time for the close of my day at work. Suffice it to say, that is problematic in ways that I can’t describe. All of my thoughts become scrambled and I get edgy to the point of being irritable. I keep saying to myself that I have to do something about my constant appetite, but that may require therapy. And I don’t have money to give to a therapist when I prefer forking it over to a restaurant. Needless to say, I wanted something with a kick to it because the weather outside was biting. To my wondering surprise, I had received a text message from a friend who had mentioned a restaurant in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, at 2577 N. Clark Street called Vapiano. I recalled walking by the restaurant countless times and thinking, Oh, that looks like a cool lounge. Well, I had to put my thoughts of chi-chi ambience aside and do something about my growling belly. So, I was on the #22 Clark Street bus heading to Vapiano to show some love — or a display of usual hunger.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Not even through the door good, the hostess greeted me with a warm welcome. With the wave of her arm, I had my pick of seats. I had arrived before the crowd and it was fantastic being able to choose a seat without any children of the corn and negligent parents in sight. Having a clear view of the open kitchen, my food alarm was dictating that I really indulge. Indulged I did. It was off to the bar for a ginger ale — yes, a non-alcoholic drink since this was a “school night.” Then I was off to the salad bar for what I thought would be a side salad. I ordered a spinach and strawberry salad that was topped with goat cheese, pine nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. This “thing” didn’t come on a small plate. It came in a huge, deep dish. If I could put a face on my appetite, let’s just say that it wore a huge smile. While I am not the greatest fan of goat cheese, when it is added to a salad as an accent, it makes everything splendid in the world.

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

My next order was penne arrabbiata. My pores exhale spices and I tend to love dishes that are heavy-handed with spices. While placing my order for the pasta dish, the chef asked me how spicy I wanted it, on a scale of 1 to 5. After he gave a jeering smile, I settled on a 4. He prepared the penne arrabbiata ANGRY the way that it should be, the way that I like it. The beauty of the dish was that this didn’t come from a bag, out of a can, or from some frozen tray. There was nothing fast about its preparation and the flavour, spicy and angry as it was, was a testament to Vapiano making sure not to fall into the category of “fast food.” Oh, and I used the homemade Italian bread to sop up the sauce. Bravo!!!

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

My New Year’s Absolution was to minimize the amount of sweets in my diet. So far, I have been off to a good start. However, I have willpower issues. I had a chat with my nutritionist, or rather a pleading session, about being able to treat myself every once in a while. She told me that instead of having a hunk of cake, fist size scoop of ice cream, eye-popping slice of ice cream, or slab of cheesecake, I could have an occasional scoop of sorbet, bowl of fruit, or a light cream dessert. Well, what should Vapiano have as a dessert option but a panna cota with strawberry sauce? It was light. It was creamy. It was dreamy. It was my allotment for the month of January. I ordered a cappuccino that I drank sans any sweetener. Either the coffee had been prepared with a quality bean or in a cappuccino machine that wasn’t caked with coffee mud. Wait. The coffee was Illy. Yep, for those who have gone to Intelligentia and are in the know about good coffee, Illy ranks up there on the “Never Disappointing” list. My appetite screamed, Molto bene!!!.

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

If you have been to Food Life in Water Tower, you will have some familiarity with the method for ordering and obtaining your food. You receive a card, after which you then go to which ever station you wish to order — salads, pasta, beverages, and desserts. When you give your order, you then “register” your order at the station. Once the orders have been fulfilled, you then pick them up, return to your table, and commence to devouring all the good eats. When all is done, you pay at the close by giving the cashier your card, who then cashes you out. It’s that simple. There are no servers who come to your table, takes your order, and brings your food to you. The atmosphere is spacious and great for a gathering of friends, especially in the bar area. While many may think that a restaurant void of a server providing table service is the equivalent of fast food, the output from the kitchen is anything but fast. And with me having had angry pasta that tasted the way I remember it tasting in Florence, I think I shall have to return to see if it was just my hunger that made the dish taste so blooming tasty, or if it was indeed heaven buried on red sauce.

Vapiano on Urbanspoon

Crepe Town, Where French Meets Thai

Crepe Town

As of late, it has occurred to me that I have been driving more than taking public transportation. That detracts from being able to see the world at eye level because driving in Chicago requires you to focus your attention in front of you always – except for when cars and daredevil children dash in front of you from behind parked cars. Fortunately in Chicago, the best way to combat missing out on ground activity is to take the bus. If you see something that catches your eye, pull the cord so the bus driver can let you get off at the next stop, exit the bus, and engage.

Green Tea Bubble Tea

Green Tea Bubble Tea

I followed my own advice this past weekend. While strolling pass a few boutique cafés in Uptown, I espied the word “Crepe” in one of the windows. With limited French representation on Chicago Alphabet Soup, this finding was a boon. There were two window seat tables that awaited me. I obliged and entered an airy boutique, greeted and welcomed by a smiling face. Having gone to two other creperies in the city, I wondered how Crepe Town at 3915 N. Sheridan Road, my new find, would compare. A brief scan of the menu had quickly proven that I was going to be in for an eclectic treat, not just some crepes accented with a drizzle, dash, or splash of something. I knew that everything was going to be fine when the green tea bubble tea arrived and left me mouthing “Wow” after the first sip.

The angels sang when I forked my first forkful of pasta a la tom yum into my mouth. I never would have fathomed the concept of Thai meets Italian with tom yum soup being the foundation for the dish. The pasta a la tom yum was flavoured with special chili herb sauce and then topped with mushrooms and shrimp. Just imagine me having a taste of that delicacy and now imagine me at the best Italian restaurant ever, making a scene that they can’t match the pasta a la tom yum I had at Crepe Town. I think the server was perhaps a bit concerned that I was slightly unbalanced because I know I did more than my share of mumbling and heaving heavy sighs throughout the meal. The angels continued to sing.

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

By the time my order of Spice Up arrived at the table, the angels had taken off their robes and were doing jazz hands, kicks, and spins. We are talking about fried fish filet with coconut curry sauce and basil. The freshness and burst of taste of the fish were highlights alone. Add to that the fish being blanketed within a tasty crepe and accented with a curry sauce. This dish was so wrong for all the right reasons. Imagine me having a delightful bite of this crepe dish. Now imagine me at the best French bistro ever, shouting that they don’t know what they’re doing and they need to take lessons from the chef at Crepe Town. By the time I had eaten a fourth of the crepe, I had to apologize to the server for my constant ramblings. I’m not lying. I am sure you have seen alcoholics who babble at imaginary friends. You probably pitied them, too. You would have had the same sentiments while watching me shaking my head, smiling ridiculously, rolling my eyes, and prattling on to no one in particular about random nonsense.

Spice Up

Spice Up

After finalizing the pasta and the crepe dishes, I requested a pause so that my feet come come back down to the ground. Really, I was hovering close to the ceiling. There was such a high from the bloom of flavourful dishes that I had just polished off. And while I was slowly returning to earth, I engaged the server in conversation about how long the restaurant had been in business. When she responded that they had been open for three years, it was indeed clear that I had been missing a lot by driving. All the times I had passed by Crepe Town and never looked off to the side and had I taken the Red Line to the Sheridan stop to browse the cafés and boutiques for a spell, I would have stumbled upon the meaning of bliss well before now. And after a little more conversation, I had made the observation that the dishes had a Thai influence to them. There are a few restaurants in Chicago that inject fusion into their menus, but Crepe Town is the example of perfection when it comes to blending two very disparate cultural cuisines.

Bananas Foster

Bananas Foster

A little more banter and my feet were firmly planted on the floor. My belly was ready for some dessert. I ordered bananas foster and a cappuccino. I have to pay for the hole in their ceiling because my rocket blasted straight for the constellation Eating Gino before I completed the third bite. The delectable crepe encased bananas and caramel. Served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and an accent of whipped cream, I operated in slow motion, working my knife and fork on the dessert while resuming my blarney. To make it worse, the cappuccino was from high quality beans. Not requiring any sweetener was the indicator. I covered my mouth to keep from shouting. I turned my face from the window so that pedestrians would not see my display of food satisfaction. And who should I face with a stifled smile plastered across her face but the server. “It’s ‘that’ good?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded, “can’t you tell?” There was laughter.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Crepe Town is a quiet café that I am sure fills to capacity earlier in the day on the weekends. It may also be a hot spot for the after-five crowd. I was fortunate to have gone when I had much of the café to myself. I could photograph my dishes without feeling as though I was disturbing anyone and I could enjoy my food without some laissez faire parent letting his or her Damien and Rhoda have a run of the place. If you want good crepes in the Chicago metropolitan area, there are a few creperies that I could recommend. I have blogged one crepe house – Icosium Kafe – that is still high on my list of recommendations and I have gone to another one that wasn’t worth blogging. Just to let you know how much I fell in love with the food, service, and the place, it is looking like Crepe Town may be a candidate for my Top 10 List of eateries for 2013. The angels would agree.

Crepe Town on Urbanspoon

Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.

I’m So Lucky

Club Lucky

Facebook has proven to be a great avenue for advertising. If you like a person, place, or thing — a not just a catch-all noun — you may find a posting on your wall that will raise your antennae. During one of the hot spells Chicago was experiencing, there was an advertisement from a restaurant that I had gone to for brunch a year ago. There was a set of martinis, all looking so refreshing, so inviting, so in need of being imbibed. Me not being a prude quickly blocked my calendar and prompted one of my friends to let her know that I was going to Club Lucky at 1824 W. Wabansia Avenue in Chicago’s Wicker Park for some liquid happiness. Not immediately off the main Milwaukee-North-Damen intersection where there is constant energy all around the clock, but rather down the street in the midst of a residential area, there were outdoor seating to be had, martinis to be turned up, and food to be devoured.

Italian BreadAll aboard the Blue Line, which is one of the busiest train lines in the city due to its run out to O’Hare Airport and through trendy neighbourhoods Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square. My friend and I squeezed on at the Clark and Lake subway stop with a host of suits, ties, skater boys, gothic chicks, and growling bellies. It was off to Club Lucky to see if those drinks they make on site had the same appeal as the ones in their Facebook advertisement. With a basket of warm homemade bread at our disposal and the setting sun allowing a bit of a cool breeze to blow about, instead of the muggy heat we had been having, we ordered a lemon drop martini apiece.

Insert sound byte of a spring popping.

Those martinis were loaded. Well, actually, they were not. The bartender had prepared them such that the lemony accent took centre stage, which allowed the vodka to creep up on us. When my friend started smiling excessively, I knew that she had started hovering just about an inch or two above ground. We then decided that it was better to savour the martinis and gobble more bread and drink more water, lest we stumble about like the trashy students at Oxford on Thursday nights.

Lemondrop MartiniHaving gone for brunch, I was already aware that Club Lucky has a way in the kitchen that results in something incredibly tasty coming to the table. The thing is you can never really judge dinner fare by breakfast or brunch. Yes, I have gone to a few restaurants where the brunch menus were, as the current hip-hop generation says, off the chain. The dinner servings were worthy for the floor, I must say. But you cannot go wrong with Italian dinners unless the chef is mixing some Chef-Boy-Ardee into the recipes. Seeing that Club Lucky is not rustic, in that they are heavy on red and cream sauces, we chose our orders — my friend based on a recommendation from the waiter and me knowing what I wanted. And we sat and waited while our orders were prepared. More bread to the table and more water poured into our glasses, we waited more, which gave us the feeling that nothing was heated quickly, styled on plates, and rushed to the tables. Happiness abounded.

Chicken and Herb Totellini

My dining companion ordered chicken and herb tortellini. These chicken and herb filled tortellinis with English peas and pine nuts in homemade vodka sauce were like sirens. They sang, begged, and lured us with each bite. Granted there were no rocks for us to smash against, but we literally were crashing against virtual stones, splashing about, and smiling foolish smiles all the same. The creamy vodka sauce, although not potent enough to make us drunk, was a nice complement to the heavy-laden martinis that kept raising us out of our seats a few inches per swallow. But the last time I had tortellinis in a creamy vodka sauce worthy of raving about was at a certain Italian restaurant in Lincoln Square that another friend and I had gone to for celebration when we both had moved away from an apartment complex on the South Side that had been taken over with drugs, prostitution, and gun play. Just like that the Lincoln Square restaurant, the preparation at Club Lucky added a bloom to the taste, as the spices worked together to give a pop to the dish.

Shrimp Arrabiata

Being a lover of spicy food, I ordered a shrimp arrabiata. Thinking that the chicken and herb tortellinis were a great hit, the arrabiata was worth standing on the table and dancing. Perhaps standing on the table, and me not being a stunt man, would not be the best thing to do. Clapping my hand, stomping my feet, singing a song, or even throwing the plate on the ground — after I had finished all of the arrabiata — would be a better option. Plump shrimp that exploded with flavour and al dente pasta under a tangy and spicy red tomato sauce were all that I needed on this particular evening of cicadas making noise in the background, a beautiful sunset, great company, and yet another martini that by now had me flying across the sky in an invisible jet. Oh, and not that it really matters, but cilantro goes with everything. Added as an accent to the arrabiata, I made a mental note again to carve a wooden hand for clapping anyone across the cheeks who boasts that they prepare the best arrabiata in the world. Clearly, they have not been to Club Lucky and had their dishes.

Cappuccino

By the time we had completed our pasta dishes, several more baskets of bread, and our martinis, we opted to sit for a while before indulging coffee and dessert. It was clear that while Club Lucky does not have an Italian nomenclature in it moniker, what comes from the kitchen is very much representative of Italy in a genuine sense. So, we felt comfortable with our dessert orders, albeit pedestrian. Cappuccino is rather standard coffee fare on menus at any restaurant you go to and instead of ordering espresso to completely wreck our martini high, it was cappuccino for us. Nothing fancy, nothing special, it was perfect and we drank ours sans sugar. Yes, you know you have a good cup of cappuccino in front of you when you do not need any sweeteners.

Apple Pie Ala Mode

One dessert we had eaten was apple pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Again, nothing spectacular, but certainly not a dessert from the frozen food section at the local market. There were chunks of apples in their natural sauces, not in a compost, which was another indication that the pie did not come from a bakery. I know that may sound like a purist statement, but when the sauce is a jelly, you have a compost from a can. That was not the case at Club Lucky. Okay, so the ice cream was not gelato and it no doubt was a scoop of Breyer’s, the main dessert was the star. But you could almost hear the pie singing to us, “You don’t have to be a star to be in my show.” And then there was the tiramisu. One bite and there was indecisiveness. There was breathlessness. There was a need to fight the urge to moan. Whoever the little Italian woman was in the kitchen who soaked the ladyfingers in rum and whipped up the mascarpone cheese and concocted such an awesome dessert deserves to have her feet washed. I have seen people get the Holy Spirit in church and I wanted to do my dance while feasting on the tiramisu.

Tiramisu

By the end of the evening, my friend and I waddled a few blocks away and teetered into a boutique grocery store where I purchased a bottle of wine for later dinners. As to our experience at Club Lucky, anyone with an insatiable appetite and an appreciation for exquisite Italian dining would do well to get his or feet under a table and get sated. Had it not been for the Facebook advertisement of the martinis, which were a blast, who knows what restaurant I would have been at? After an evening of super service, fantastic food, and smile-inducing prices, the only thing that comes to mind is oh how lucky I am to be able to enjoy such bliss.